I grew up with the usual blue collar skepticism of psychology. I don't think we had a psychologist or psychiatrist in my home town, and if I had told my parents I was "depressed" they would have told me something like "yeah, everyone is - get used to it!"
When I went to college I had a friend that was studying psychology who was happy to tell me all about it. It turns out there is a branch of psychology called cognitive psychology that deals with how people behave. Rather than come up with abstract theories to explain why individuals do things, cognitive psychologists observe people and use the data to understand and predict behavior in general. While individuals can vary a lot for lots of different reasons, over large groups patterns emerge. There is real science here: this sort of research is used to do things like design highways to have fewer accidents and help grocery stores to sell more vegetables.
What does this have to do with building models?
It turns out psychologists have spent a lot of time looking at procrastination - putting off important tasks until the last minute, and then generally doing a crummy job of whatever needed doing. People who procrastinate generally aren't happy; they feel frustrated when they don't get things done on time and guilty when they're not working on the things they know they should be doing. Procrastination generally spills over into all areas of a person's life; the guess is 70-80% of Americans procrastinate at least occasionally and 20% of Americans procrastinate so much as to affect their health, jobs and families.
While a lot of behavioral research is done in the real world with trained observers and hidden cameras, figuring out more complicated behaviors is often done with somewhat contrived experiments. A classic experiment related to procrastination involves little kids and cookies: an adult gives a kid a cookie and tells them if they don't eat the cookie right away, they'll get a second cookie a few minutes later. Then the adult leaves the room while a hidden camera watches. A few kids just straight away eat the cookie; many struggle a bit and eventually eat the cookie, and about 1/3 actually wait the 15 minutes for the adult to come back and give them a second cookie. By running these tests on young children, the assumption is that the kids haven't had time to learn how they are supposed to behave, allowing the experimenters to see their built-in or natural behavior. Follow ups over the years have found that the kids that waited for the second cookie were more successful in school and work, presumably because of their instinctive willingness to work towards long term goals.
The statistics in the experiment are suspiciously similar to the procrastination numbers; a good guess is that the kids who waited for a second cookie are the few that grow up to never procrastinate.
A lot of everyday behaviors turn out to be based on a rational strategy. If you think about the kids waiting for the second cookie a lot of things could happen: they might drop the first cookie in the dirt, or another kid might come along and take the cookie, or maybe the adult lied and they weren't really coming back with another cookie. All of these are very real possibilities the average 5 year old has most likely experienced that make not waiting make sense (if you think adults don't lie to little kids, you're probably not a parent or teacher).
To be sure adults usually develop a little more self control than a 6 year old, but the basic behavior seems to be built in, as if our brains are wired to get excited about getting what we want right now. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors came across a tasty antelope, they didn't think "let's wait and see if the rest of the herd comes along and we can take a few home and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue" - instead their adrenaline kicked in and they speared the one that was already standing there now and called it a day. When it comes to survival, the bird in hand usually beats two in the bush. Trading an immediate reward for something better in the future - delaying gratification - only makes sense when that future is reasonably predictable; it is a winning behavior in our regimented rule-driven modern world, but its not surprising that the desire for immediate gratification developed over millennia drives many of our decisions.
And yet we're talking about procrastinating from a hobby: something that is supposed to be fun. You would think that when modelers procrastinate, we'd spend that time building models. Instead we re-watch old TV shows, play computer games, or research and think about that model we're going to build "someday". One of the interesting things the psychologists have found is that procrastinators rarely do anything constructive when they are procrastinating: its almost as if we want to feel guilty for completely wasting our time.
It is possible that TV itself is part of the problem. There is evidence - by which I mean the best pop science websites I could find - that TV is naturally hypnotic and addictive - and that the people making the shows have learned to tailor the content to be even more habit-forming.
Some of the earliest behavioral experiments were done with animals - applying science to the traditional methods of animal trainers. The researchers quickly noticed that behaviors seen in animals are often reflected in in humans - presumably because our brains have evolved under similar conditions and so work in similar ways.
One of the more interesting animal discoveries is something called learned helplessness. Researchers were doing basic conditioning experiments with dogs, where they would ring bells and give the dogs electric shocks. Typically the dog could turn off the shock by doing something, and they would quickly learn to do whatever it was to avoid the shock. Soon the dogs would associate the bell with the shock, so that just ringing the bell would cause them to take action to avoid the shock. Lots of variations were tried to figure out what factors affected the dogs learning to escape.
Out of completeness, someone had the bright idea of putting dogs in a cage where they couldn't escape the shocks no matter what they did; these dogs received the same shocks for the same amount of time as the dogs who had a way to turn off the shocks, they just took away the dogs ability to turn the shocks off. It turned out those dogs quickly learned to not even try to avoid the shocks, even when they were later given a way to escape. They had been trained to give up without even trying - not just in the experimental environment but in general. These dogs started to act like dogs that were abused: they were passive and fearful and had poor health compared to the other dogs.
Now think about the path many of us took into modeling as adults: we got married and bought a house, and suddenly had more free time and less disposable income than in those halcyon days of our youth. We were primed to be sucked into a hobby, and somehow we discovered and were drawn to model making. So we bought a few kits and magazines, joined the local IPMS chapter, started learning about more advanced techniques - and then ran into some job or family obligation that got in the way. A new baby was born, some big home remodeling project came along, work demanded overtime, our parents had health problems, we changed jobs, our kids joined a sports team - the disruptions can seem endless, and typically it is our hobbies that take the hit.
So thanks to whatever the most recent disruption was, the model we had planned to have finished for the big contest ended up half-built in a box. When we finally got back to the workbench we had lost enthusiasm for that model; while it was sitting there on the shelf we had learned new techniques and bought new tools and kits and got excited about some other subject. Hey, let's just rip the plastic-wrap off another kit! We can get back to that other build later. Not finishing a model has few consequences: we can still go to a club meeting and talk to our friends and stop for pizza after the meeting, we can still go to a contest and look at the models and buy more kits even if we don't enter any models.
Years go by and it gets easier and easier not to build. We feel bad, but the bad feeling doesn't last long enough to motivate us to do something about it. Our natural tendency to procrastinate has helped us train ourselves to never actually finish anything!
If psychology explains our procrastination, does it tell us how to fix it?
Many human behaviors are more a product of habit than conscious thought. Doing the same thing the same way over and over becomes instinctive. Practice helps us to do those things with less effort and fewer mistakes. As part of becoming empty-nesters my wife and I worked out a deal where she cooks and I clean up the kitchen. After months of having to be reminded, it finally became automatic for me to carry the dishes to the dishwasher after dinner - to the point where I feel a little uncomfortable when we're in a hurry and we just stack the dishes for later.
If this sounds a lot like teaching a dog to sit or roll-over, you're right: habits are formed in a part of the brain that is common to most animals; they represent one of the most basic sorts of learned behavior. At least in humans these automatic behaviors are monitored and can be overridden by the more conscious parts of the brain, but the habits themselves seem to be formed in the same way in dogs and people: through simple repetition.
What the animal trainers have known for a long time is that developing these automatic behaviors is a lot easier when there is immediate feedback to reinforce the desired behavior: a reward for getting it right or a punishment for getting it wrong. If the reward comes too late its not nearly as effective - we don't associate the behavior with the reward. The problem with building models is that the feedback is not immediate: it can take weeks or months at the workbench before we get to show off the model at a club meeting or enter it in a contest. If you - like me - are a natural born procrastinator, you need to come up with some more timely sort of feedback to keep you focused. Here is a laundry list of such techniques - a few that have worked for me and some recommended by others.
Schedule your work sessions. Take a calendar or datebook and mark off all the obligations you just have to do and figure out when you can model. Be realistic. You can't model from midnight to 2AM if you have to get up at 6AM for work the next day. If your whole family gets together to watch a TV show, you don't want to miss that time together (and you probably won't no matter what you think you're going to do). If you have small children you probably aren't going to get 5 hours uninterrupted at the bench. But try to find a time-slot or two where you can fairly reliably get to the bench, and put it on your calendar (or the calendar app in your smart phone). Remember the idea is to make your modeling part of your regular routine.
Commit to a Goal. For the modeling procrastinator, just having a newly finished model to take to a contest can be its own reward. The trap is that there is always another contest just over the horizon; if you don't get a model finished for one of the "spring shows", maybe you can get something done for the IPMS Nat's in mid-summer, and if not there are always the "fall shows" a few months after that. When the reward is not immediate, having a reminder of the specific goal/reward you're working to can help keep you motivated.
Pick a specific show a few months out and commit to taking a model: hang the show flyer over your workbench. Make plans with your friends to attend. Pick a model you've been working on (don't start another new kit) - because the less you have to do to finish the better.
And then count the days until the show. In the old science fiction movie "When Worlds Collide", a rogue star is going to destroy the Earth and the good-guy scientists are building a spaceship to allow a lucky few to escape. At the gate to the factory where they are building the spaceship there is a sign counting down the days to the end of the world, with the caption "waste anything except this time". You can easily make a sign like this with a pack of sticky-notes; tearing the days off on every trip to the work bench will help you avoid the trap of thinking "I still have all the time in the world" (the sticky notes you tear off have lots of uses, like masking or a handy place to mix epoxy).
Doggie Treats. If you've ever tried to teach a dog some simple trick like shaking hands, you know how important it is to reward the dog with some praise and an occasional biscuit when they get it right. A lot of behavioral research has found that rewards work much better than punishments, and the reward has to come immediately after the desired behavior. So try to build some simple rewards into your modeling routine:
- If you model in the evening finish up with a late night snack or an adult beverage, or watch your favorite TV show before calling it a night (DVRs are great for fitting your modeling around your TV watching and are worth the few extra dollars your cable company changes).
- If you spend all Saturday afternoon at the workbench take your Significant Other out for dinner or to the movies afterwards.
- If your modeling club gets together before or after the meeting for pizza and beer, make that your reward for taking something, even a work-in-progress, to the meeting to show.
- When you finish an old kit allow yourself to buy a new kit.
Checklists. One of the things I noticed in my IPMS club is that some (certainly not all) of our more prolific modelers have military backgrounds. It got me thinking there was something about their training and way of life that taught them not to procrastinate.
Since I was never in the military this is a bit of guesswork, but from talking to my friends who are veterans I suspect what makes a difference is the military's tendency to "procedure-ize" tasks. For every job a serviceman needs to do there are an exacting set of steps to complete it. While the "Army Way" is the butt of a lot of jokes, it does insure a consistent, generally more than adequate result. More importantly for our purposes, crossing off each step provides immediate feedback of progress. I've had some success in modeling making to-do lists for each session, and literally crossing things off with a big black marker can be a real morale booster, at least for some folks.
If you're comfortable with using computer spreadsheets (like Excel) they can be used to keep checklists that can be sorted and updated in ways you just can't do with paper. I've been poking around with this; when I work the bugs I'll share the results in another one of these articles.
Greasing the skids. Procrastinators love excuses for not doing things. Anything you can do to remove roadblocks will make it more likely you actually get to the bench and stay long enough to accomplish something. Clean your bench so there is just 1 model taking up space and sort your tools so you can actually find them. Get a radio or small TV so you can listen or watch sports while you're modeling (baseball and football games are full of long stretches of commercials and guys standing around doing nothing). If your metabolism relies on coffee to keep your heart pumping, take a few cups in a thermos or add a small coffee maker to your work space.
Enough theory. I'm going to put this to the test by finishing a model for the R4 Regional Convention in April; watch this space to for updates on what does and doesn't work for me. Or leave a comment with your favorite tips for beating procrastination (aka modeler's block). Now go build something!